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Healing the Underlying Condition: Ourselves

Over the last few years, I’ve been hatching a book, tentatively titled, Don’t Get Better. I will periodically share excerpts such as today's installment (which includes a brief exercise at the end). This is from a chapter called, “Healing the Underlying Condition: Ourselves.”

Pain is like a truffle hunting pig, which with its blunt snout digs up uncomfortable emotions.

When I was growing up, my mom and I watched Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, a TV series about a female doctor on the frontier of the American West with only her 19th century medical training and a well-coiled hair bun to protect her. Often, Dr. Quinn’s patients would be battling a bullet wound, snakebite, or burn (no carpal tunnel). To prevent infection, the main killer of the day, she would apply a warm compress and a poultice of herbs to draw out the infection towards the skin, where pus and germs could drain out. If the infection remained below the surface, it would fester and spread throughout the entire body, thriving in the dark, closed interior. Given that antibiotics were nearly a century away, the only hope for these poor cowboys was if the infection rose to the surface, ugly and blistering as it might appear. Fresh air and topical ointments could then save the patient’s life; a satisfying conclusion before my middle school bedtime.

Pain and the uncertainty of illness also work like an old-fashioned poultice, drawing our most vulnerable selves to the surface. Soon after pain comes questions like,

“Shouldn’t I be better by now?”

“Can anyone possibly know how hard this is?”

“Why does this continue to happen to me?”

Yet there exists an expectation that we should be able to compartmentalize our pain, keep it in an airtight bulkhead, so that we can stay focused on getting better, or at least not tearing up on the commute to work. Try as we might to “keep a good face on” or “stay positive,” chronic pain and the threat of further degradation unnerve us and we may feel overrun with fear and dread. If you’ve made the medical rounds and seen a bunch of healthcare providers, you probably picked up on the cues that it’s more comfortable for everyone involved if you talk about your pain and body strictly physically, as if you’re bringing a car into the shop.

Since it was implicitly communicated that the only road to well-being was through physical improvement, I doubled down on physical therapy, stretching, and exerted a nutritional martial law on myself. The relief of pain became the Holy Grail: I set my jaw and soldiered towards that goal. I tried to heal the shit out of myself, only resting if it seemed “productive.” During my “rest,” I thought about all the things I still had to do or should be doing instead.

Yet, pain was continually cracking the lid on my real suffering – not just the neck pain – but the inner turmoil: the feelings of unworthiness, the anxiety and sense that my life was terribly off-track. I was having an internal experience that no one else was talking about – not doctors, friends, and even family. Where was unworthiness and anxiety located on the 1-10 pain scale? How could I dispassionately evaluate my arm pain when it seemed to mean the end of my working life – at 26?

When these feelings came up (and they dogged me), I forcefully shifted my focus back to pain and limitations being the primary problem. That’s what everyone around me seemed to be asking me about and could relate to. Once my pain was better, I assumed I’d be happily mountain biking past lighthouses like those paid actors in pharmaceutical commercials.

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Exercise: The first shift that puts us on the path to well-being and joy is when we stop defending ourselves from uncomfortable emotions and feelings. We take the resources that have been used to keep our feelings of fear and helplessness at bay, and we channel them towards more constructive purposes.

Once we establish a practice of noticing our resistance (with gentleness), we discover that we do not need to be so vigilant or protective. This is not an exercise, however, about being tough or gritting our teeth through pain. It’s more about exploring our actual experience, not just the narrative in our head, to see where we might be stuck or censoring our reactions. I prefer to employ questions rather than demands when working with pain. Try the question below, not like a hard-hitting investigative journalist, but as if a beloved friend or mentor were asking in an unhurried way and with no sense of pressure.

What am I resisting, if anything, right now?

Try not to over analyze this question. It’s a question for your body and heart. Do you notice any tension or withholding? You can close your eyes to focus on your felt experience. Is there a sense as if you’re not allowed to feel something in this moment? What if you had full permission?

The implicit message of this question is NOT that you need to stop resisting, or that there is a moral judgment against resisting. We have plenty of good reasons for not wanting to feel everything all the time, some of it could be about personal and emotional safety. Rather, this question just seeks to notice if there is any resistance and what it feels like. That’s enough. Don’t make this a project of not having resistance.

Make this a gentle practice throughout the day, like a sparrow landing on a branch: light and brief. I usually notice that I’m tightening somewhere in my body, bracing against some worry or emotion I’d prefer to minimize.

What comes up for you?

And consider joining myself and IDP teacher, Jackie Stewart, on Saturday, January 28, for a half-day workshop exploring the fundamental teachings of the Buddha, The Four Noble Truths, and how we can develop a direct connection with this wisdom through our body.

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